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Healthwatch 16: Dentist brings checkups to Luzerne County Pre-K classroom

A couple of nonprofits offer free dental screenings in low-income areas while educating kids on oral hygiene

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — Research shows kids in lower-income families are less likely to get dental care

A couple of nonprofits in Luzerne County are working to change that by giving free dental screenings while educating kids on oral hygiene. We sat in on Thursday's dental screening—not in a dentist's office, but in a Pre-K class.

For 4-year-old Mateo Meja, it's not every day that Pre-K involves a dental screening.

"They told me about, 'Did you brush your teeth?'" Mateo said. "I said I forgot to brush my teeth, and I ate candy."

But a teeth check-up it was, at South Wilkes-Barre Child Development Council on Thursday morning.

"We realized many years ago that if the adult or the caregiver was coming into our dental clinic with numerous cavities, that we need to educate the children," said Kelly Ranieli, executive director of Volunteers in Medicine. "We need to explain the importance to them of brushing their teeth."

For the past seven years, Volunteers in Medicine has been visiting schools and other facilities, mainly in low-income communities, across the Wyoming Valley, checking kids' teeth while also educating them.

Darcie Schaffer, dental services manager for Volunteers in Medicine in Wilkes-Barre, explained to children how to properly brush their teeth using a toy fish. She also compared sugar quantities in a 28-ounce bottle of Gatorade and a Hershey's candy bar.

"I say, 'Which one do we think has more sugar in it?' And most of the kids say the candy bar. And that's the wrong answer," Schaffer said. "It's actually the Gatorade has more sugar than the candy."

"We also provide toothbrushes, floss, and educational materials for parents," Jennifer Deemer, community impact vice president for United Way, said.

United Way of Wyoming Valley donated $30,000 for the "Healthy Smiles for a Healthy Start" program.

"When young children are healthy, they're going to do better in school," Deemer said.

According to Volunteers in Medicine, the uninsured rate in Luzerne County is 9 percent, which means about 30,000 are without insurance.

"In our community, one out of every four children lives in poverty," Deemer said.

As for Thursday's dentist visit, many of the children had fun, while some seemed apprehensive to show the dentist their chompers.

"I never know what I'm going to get," Darcie Schaffer said. "And some of the kids love it, even my big stuffed animal; some of the kids are afraid of that."

But for many, like Pre-K student Mateo Meja, it was clear that they at least learned something.

"They said that I can't eat a lot of candy," he said.

Volunteers in Medicine serves the low-income but says any child agency can request a visit. For more information, head here.